On the Table: Asian influences

With a new noodle shop and a second one about to open, Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill is shaping up to be one of the most dynamic stretches of the city for Asian cuisine, especially for authentic fare from Thailand, Japan, or variations on Chinese food from Taiwan, Hong Kong or the Sichuan Province.

The Ramen Bar debuted in early December in what had been Lilly's Gourmet Pasta on the stretch between Shady and Murray avenues. The clean, well-lighted place serves giant bowls of shoyu (soy), shio (salt) and miso-based soup laden with dumplings, roast pork, scallions or bamboo.

Across the street, Everyday Noodles is expected to open next month at 5875 Forbes Ave. in what had been Sirani Gallery. The restaurant will offer soup dumplings and handmade noodles.

With its modest brick flats and faded office buildings, Squirrel Hill's main drag may appear stuck in the '70s. Yet restaurants here offer cuisine that may well be new to Pittsburgh.

Some dishes highlight offal or tripe. They feature mustard or chrysanthemum greens. They display delicate abalone or translucent shirred jellyfish. And they are seasoned with captivating condiments made from chilis, cured meat, pickles or dried fish.

Forbes Avenue's Asian restaurants aren't blossoming on the cheap. Annual rents for moderate-sized restaurants between 3,000 and 6,000 square feet cost as much here as any desirable location in the city, from the low to mid $20s per square foot. Compare that to higher profile Market Square restaurant space, Downtown, which costs between $35 and $40 a square foot.

"Squirrel Hill is pretty much full right now," said David Glickman, director of retail services at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank Retail Group, Downtown. "There is a shortage of retail space in that neighborhood," he said, citing the area of Forbes Avenue between Shady and Murray avenues as well as Murray Avenue between Forbes and Beacon Street.

What first drew Asian restaurants to Squirrel Hill is bringing more to the neighborhood. A robust Jewish community has been a ready clientele, a cultural link documented in larger cities, in academia and pop culture (there's a 2005 episode of TV's "Gilmore Girls" about this link). It helps that it's relatively easy to find food that's prepared to abide by kosher law; milk and meat, for example, are rarely mixed.

More Asian immigrants as well as first-generation Asians who mentor newcomers have also contributed to the restaurant boomlet.

"There's a sizable Asian community in town," wrote Chris Briem of the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh. In an email, he noted Asian-born immigrants now comprise 5 percent of the city's population.

Below are some highlights of restaurants old and new on Forbes Avenue.

Bangkok Balcony

Fastidious service and a view of the neighborhood is offered at this restaurant run by Norraset Nareedokmai and his wife, Eileen, since 2004, also the proprietors of Silk Elephant on Murray Avenue. The couple have been ambassadors of Thai cuisine, hosting guest chefs from Thailand and working with the University of Pittsburgh to create a Thai Nationality Room at the Cathedral of Learning.

A massive door emblazoned with artful lettering marks Bangkok Balcony's entrance, while silk tapestries line walls. Couples sit at tables by plate glass windows to enjoy sunlight, views and specials.

Dishes to order: Thai sausage salad, Lab salad, basil leaf pork, Hawmok seafood.

Bangkok Balcony, 5846 Forbes Ave.; bangkokbalconypgh.com; 412-521-0728.

Sun Penang

This Malaysian restaurant offers a pan-Asian approach to dining.

During the cold weather go for the shabu shabu special, the onomatopoeic name for this Japanese version of fondue, similar to hot pot variations found all over Asia. Named for the swish-swish sound of dipping in broth, it's a delightful dish for sharing.

Along with thinly sliced beef or pork, a plate arrives with fish balls, enoki and shitake mushrooms, dumplings, squid, bok choy, cabbage, tomatoes and glass noodles.

A condiment was made tableside by a server, who added garlic to a soup bowl, followed by bean paste. He ladled in a little broth and garnished with chopped herbs.

Dishes to order: Pork or beef shabu shabu, roti canai, Prince's bean curd (tofu made in-house), shrimp sambal.

Sun Penang, 5829 Forbes Ave.; sun-penang.com; 412-421-7600.

The Ramen Bar

This is the latest addition to the Wu family restaurants, which include Rose Tea Cafe (also on Forbes) and its second location of Rose Tea scheduled to open at 414 S. Craig St., Oakland.

"The Ramen Bar is a concept that seems to fit well in this market," said Mike Wu. His restaurant has seen a steady clientele from the neighborhood as well as those who want to try the restaurant's rendition of what is currently a stylish soup.

Mr. Wu observed how the neighborhood has changed since he and his sisters opened Rose Tea Cafe on Forbes Avenue in the early 2000s. "Squirrel Hill has become more diverse," he said. "It helps that the universities are nearby, with many international students."

Dishes to order: Negi ramen, wonton ramen, chicken salad, hiyayakko (tofu with kim chee).

The Ramen Bar, 5860 Forbes Ave.; on Facebook; 412-521-5138.

Rose Tea Cafe

Started as a bubble tea and snack joint, this full-fledged Taiwanese restaurant has flourished. Introduced to Squirrel Hill by Mike Wu and his sisters, the tiny cafe has expanded to become a beloved Pittsburgh Chinese restaurant.

Mr. Wu noted the chunk chicken laced with a ginger, garlic basil sauce remains the customer favorite, which arrives in a piping hot bowl. He likes a simple dish such as pork fried rice.

Dishes to order: Scallion pancakes, chunk chicken, shredded beef with hot pepper, shredded pork with spicy cabbage.

Rose Tea Cafe, 58741/2 Forbes Ave.; on Facebook; 412-421-2238.

How Lee

Recently renovated, How Lee run by Tom Ng offers two menus: familiar Chinese American dishes and a full-page of spicy Sichuan fare. Go easy on the latter, because many dishes feature chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns that lend a blaring heat.

Note that many patrons are Chinese -- always a good sign. There's often a line for a table.

"The fish filet in hot broth and the spicy fried chicken are mostly what people come here for," said a server. Yet there's so many other delicious possibilities, especially from the Sichuan menu.

Dishes to order: La zi ji (chicken with chilis), mapo tofu, twice-cooked pork belly and intestines, chicken chili hot pot, tea-smoked duck, fish filet in spicy broth.

How Lee, 5888 Forbes Ave.; 412-422-1888.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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